Nellie Margarita Gorbea made history in 2016 as the first Hispanic elected to statewide office in all of New England, becoming Rhode Island's Secretary of State, after stints as that agency's second in command, and previous positions in the non-profit sector. While Rhode Island is the smallest U.S. state by area, it is also the second-most densely populated - only behind much larger New Jersey - and with a growing Latino population.
Gorbea, born and raised in Puerto Rico, recently announced a run for governor of "The Ocean State," and if elected would be the first Puerto Rican governor of any of the 50 U.S. states. She spoke with LPO about her start as a Latina in politics, the issues she's focusing on, and why she's decided to start her gubernatorial campaign so early on with that election more than a year away in November 2022.
Q: What inspired you to go into public service?
A: I've always been interested in community problem-solving and in history because it gives us background into how we got to where we are. I was that kid in 7th grade in Puerto Rico that when they explained what student council was, I said, okay sure, and I proceeded to serve (all through high school). When I got to college, I got involved in extracurricular activities there with Latino students and when I got out of college and realized I would be staying on the mainland (United States), I decided to get involved locally and formed connections with people. I joined the boards of non-profits and that has been part of my path to get elected.
Q: A lot of people don't realize that Rhode Island has a growing Latino population. How did you end up in Rhode Island?
A: I actually got married right after graduate school and my husband had already been offered a job at the University of Rhode Island, so I came as a faculty spouse and immediately set about to find a community. We didn't have any extended family in the state, so the first thing I did was show up at meetings of the Governor's Advisory Commission on Hispanic Affairs. After about three meetings, I got appointed to the commission. Many of those people on the commission are still some of my best friends.
Q: What can you tell us about the growing Latino population in Rhode Island (the latest U.S. Census figures show it at 180,000 - 17 percent of the state's residents - compared to 50,000 ten years ago)?
A: It's very diverse. It's almost equally divided between Puerto Ricans and Dominicans, with a very large group of Colombians. There are also Argentines, Bolivians, Ecuadorans, Mexicans, Peruvians; so we really have a very diverse Latino community. Each has its cultural organizations and sports groups, but in politics has managed to come together to organize and to bring things for the better.
Q: You actually made history by being the first Latina elected to statewide office in all of New England. How did that feel?
A: I was the first Hispanic because I was first actually Latina or Latino and in a small place like Rhode Island, not in much bigger Connecticut or even Massachusetts. It was an honor and very humbling to be the first. You go into these positions because of yourself and you feel you are confident to do a really good job. It's a big responsibility. As our vice president (Kamala Harris) says, I may be the first but I will not be the last.
Q: You've never thought about joining the Biden administration?
A: No, I'm really very committed to Rhode Island. I still have kids who are in school, and I really wanted to be here grounded in Rhode Island. I see the opportunity to get things done. I am very excited about all the people of color the Biden administration has appointed, including many phenomenal Latinos and Latinas.
Q: And you would do the same if elected (to the governorship), have a diverse office?
A: You already see it in my office (as Secretary of State). It's one of the most diverse in state government. That started when I was deputy Secretary of State 20 years ago. I made sure that as we restructured the office, it really reflected the diversity of the state. About 25 percent of our employees are people of color.
Q: What attracted you to the Secretary of State position?
A: What motivated me is I see it as a filing cabinet for all this information about government (including elections) and I wanted to turn it around and make it a hub of information that people could use to hold government accountable and to improve their own lives. And that's exactly what we've done. We invested in our elections structure at the local and statewide level, and by the time we got to the 2020 election, we were ready, even with the pandemic. We had modernized our IT infrastructure, we bought new voting machines, we bought electronic poll pads, we passed online voter registration as an option, automated voter registration, all of these improvements. And we had a record number of Rhode Island voters who came out and voted without any problems at all. These improvements helped maintain clean voter rolls. By shifting the way we do things we make it easier on the voter.
Q: And that would make it easier in a gubernatorial race?
A: Absolutely, because I can look at Rhode Islanders in the eye and say that I am the only one in the Democratic primary who has actually transformed an agency of Rhode Island state government. I am proud of that track record and how it has worked for residents, and they have noticed and they're actually excited about my candidacy.
Q: What made you decide to announce a run for the governorship so early in the race?
A: It's part of who I am as far as transparency. I am term limited (as Secretary of State). I was starting to raise money and I like to tell people what that's for and I didn't want to be coy about these aspirations. These races are not inexpensive, they are multimillion dollar endeavors. In my case it's going to take a lot of people because I am not a self-funder. I'm actually the only candidate in this race that has not loaned themselves money. (Gorbea credits her time on the cross country team back in Puerto Rico with "good training" for her career in politics. "These races are a marathon, they're not sprints," she chuckles. "You have to be able will yourself to continue at times when it can be very, very tough.)
Q: So why are running and why should anyone vote for you?
A: I'm running to continue this work of transforming government to make it work for people, and because we are at a very pivotal moment in the history of our country and our state. We have all this federal money that's coming in and the next governor will be able to use to transform the future of our state and to build an economy that is more just and equitable by making sure that we reach out to the various constituencies that make up the state. I believe you can make local government more just and equitable through investing in local businesses. To have a robust economy, there are certain building blocks that we need to address. Education is key, and I am looking to make sure that every child in the state has access to a much better education than what we've been able to provide. Tied at the hip with education is housing, and making it more affordable. Our housing costs are too high. And also climate change, which is a real concern. Rhode Island is "The Ocean State" and we have an amazing amount of coastline, and we need to be prepared for sea level rise and other issues that are coming out of climate change. Renewable energy, and jobs, too.
Q: How important do you think the Latino vote is going to be in your race?
A: The Latino vote has proved to be critical in every Democratic primary (in Rhode Island) since 2002. It is a vote that has really helped make or break candidacies. I was just on two Spanish-language radio stations talking not just about my candidacy but about the importance of vaccinations, of masking; these are important messages to convey (to the Latino community). I have been involved in the Latino community (in Rhode Island) for almost 30 years, so people know me, they know my track record. I have seen groups of kids come to the State House, and every now and then they're Hispanic kids and I see them so excited about the fact that one of their elected officials is somebody that they can relate to. And it's that sense of awe and wonder that the kids bring that's part of the reason I'm running. I want to bring that back into people's lives, to have them understand that government can do very good things for the betterment of everyone. We as Latinos have a role to play and be part of the solutions that need to be developed.
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